The egg came first. At least the arrival of 450,000 spring chinook eggs last week marked a first for the Clatsop County Economic Development Council's Fisheries Project.

After 26 years, the fisheries project is changing from strictly research to production, as well, and shifting to a stronger emphasis on spring chinook, a more prized and valuable product. These eggs are the first that will be raised under the new focus.

Tod Jones, manager of Clatsop County's fisheries project, picked up the eggs from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's South Santiam hatchery near Sweet Home. The eggs were packed in ice in trays that were stacked in a huge tote. The tote was placed in the bed of Jones' pickup truck for the 41/2 hour ride to Astoria. This is the second shipment of eggs from the Santiam hatchery this year, resulting in a total of 695,000.

The eggs were unloaded at the CEDC Fisheries Project's hatchery operations on the South Fork of the Klaskanine River. There, fisheries technicians Keith Warren and Chris Ketchum placed each tray into a disinfectant bath and then separated the eggs into smaller trays that were placed into incubators.

The eggs - called "eyed" at this stage - will hatch and remain in the incubators until mid-February, when they will be transferred to an early rearing pond at the hatchery. They will be moved to a larger pond to grow until release as smolts into the river in April 2004. The matured adults will return to Youngs Bay for harvesting two to three years later.

Local business leaders started the fisheries project in 1976 to bolster the fishing industry as native salmon runs on the lower Columbia diminished. The intent was to create a new fishery of premium quality salmon without adversely affecting endangered stocks.

The project uses hatchery facilities to spawn, hatch and rear juvenile salmonids, which are transferred to net pens, grown and released from these pens. The salmon return as adults to a selected area where they were released. The goal is for 100 percent of the returning salmon to be caught by either sport or commercial fisheries.

Today, most commercial and sport fish caught in Youngs Bay are produced by the Fisheries Project and ODFW's three Lower Columbia River hatcheries.

Funding for the CEDC project comes from Bonneville Power Administration through its Select Area Fisheries Evaluation Project, ODFW and grants from ODFW's Restoration and Enhancement Program. In addition, local gillnetters pay a self-imposed, voluntary 5 percent assessment on the value of their catch, which is matched by fish processors.

The CEDC Fisheries Project is part of the county's Community Development Department.